With upsets of three of the four higher seeds playing Wednesday in the Stanley Cup playoffs, coach Bruce Boudreau was concerned over what the NHL's top-seeded Capitals would do Thursday night in their series opener against the team with the fewest points in the postseason, the Montreal Canadiens.
It turns out he had a right to be worried.
Facing a Canadiens team that had won two of four games against the Caps in the regular season -- including handing Washington one of just five regulation losses at Verizon Center -- the Habs took Game 1 of the series as Tomas Plekanec scored with 6:41 left in overtime for a 3-2 victory over Washington.
Montreal was able to hang with the Caps through a first period dominated by Washington -- but yielding only one goal -- and erasing a 2-1 deficit in the third period to force the extra session. Goaltender Jaroslav Halak had 45 saves for Montreal, keeping the Canadiens in the game with some key saves.
For his part, Jose Theodore also had some nice stops for Washington, turning away 35 of 38 shots, but couldn't stop Plekanec's shot over his shoulder for the game-winner.
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With the win, the Canadiens take the home ice earned over 82 games of the regular season away from Washington after just one contest, and grab a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinals series.
"We're happy with the win," Montreal forward Michael Cammalleri said. "If you look at the game, especially in the first, [the Capitals] created a lot of chances. They were definitely the powerhouse we expected and showed us what they could do in that first period. I thought [Halak] played really well. We were able to capitalize on a few and get a big victory for ourselves."
"[Montreal's] got a great hockey team," Caps forward Boyd Gordon said. "They come at you in waves and have good transitions at forward. They're a good, solid team. They're a hard-working team. We know we're in for a tough series."
Washington got an early power-play chance when Marc-Andre Bergeron was whistled for hooking Jason Chimera just :52 into the contest. Despite a couple of good chances with the extra man, Halak kept the Caps scoreless.
The Capitals kept pressing, getting the first seven shots of the contest, dominating play until Alexander Semin took Washington's first penalty of the series with 6:01 gone. Theodore was able to hold steady and quell the threat.
However, Montreal got its second power play with 7:49 left in the period thanks to a cross-checking call on Nicklas Backstrom, and the Habs cashed in. Cammalleri scored the first goal of the series with a shot that beat Theodore over his shoulder just :25 into the power play for an early 1-0 lead for the Canadiens.
The Caps got a chance to pull even quickly when they got an extra-man advantage of their own when Benoit Pouliot was called for charging just :17 after Cammalleri's goal, but Washington couldn't convert.
However, the Capitals did finally get a goal out of their strong first period effort with 4:27 left in the frame when Joe Corvo's shot from just inside the blue line just eluded Halak to send the sellout crowd of 18,377 into a frenzy and deadlock the game at 1-1.
Washington outshot the Habs 19-7 through 20 minutes, but still only were tied up at a single goal apiece, as Montreal survived the early onslaught -- which helped swing the momentum back to the Canadiens after the visitors made a couple of changes.
"Pretty subtle," Cammalleri said of Montreal's tweaks. "Credit again to them in the first period. They got that skill level and they came pretty heavy on us and there was a little bit of pressure."
Backstrom nearly put the Capitals up with just under five minutes gone in the period, as he put a shot on that Halak got just a piece of with his glove, but the puck just skittered near the goal line and past the post.
The Habs gave the Caps their third power play of the night with 11:26 left in the middle frame thanks to a too-many-men penalty, but the Caps again failed to convert. The Canadiens even got a couple of good chances at the other end of the ice once the penalty expired, but Theodore made some nice stops to keep the game tied.
Corvo was whistled for holding with just 1:41 left in the period, giving Montreal's power play a chance to pull ahead heading into the dressing room, but the Caps held.
Just after the penalty expired in the opening seconds of the third period, the Caps took their first lead of the night, when Mike Knuble corraled a loose puck in the Canadiens' end, fed Backstrom, and the Swede beat Halak just :47 into the frame.
Although Washington tried to hang on to the 2-1 lead, Montreal tied it back up with 12:26 to play when Scott Gomez took a cross-ice pass from Brian Gionta and tapped it past Theodore for the equalizer.
However, a poor penalty on Travis Moen, who hit Caps defenseman John Carlson on an icing call, gave the hosts an extra-man advantage with 9:18 to play in regulation after being assessed a boarding call. Washington's power play again came up empty, and the score remained tied at two.
Carlson and Gordon had a 2-on-1 break with less than three minutes left in regulation, but Carlson couldn't connect on his pass attempt and the chance passed without the Caps taking a shot on Halak.
With just :26.6 left in regulation, Green took a bad penalty to give Montreal a chance to win the contest. The Caps' defenseman tossed the puck over the end glass on a clearing attempt around the back of the zone, earning a delay-of-game penalty and giving the Canadiens a chance to close regulation with a power play. Washington killed the first part of the penalty to force overtime -- the third overtime game between the two teams in five meetings so far this season.
Washington was able to kill the remainder of Green's infraction in sudden-death overtime to get the defenseman off the hook, and after the penalty kill, the extra session turned into a wide-open affair. Andrei Kostitsyn got a good chance at one end, and then Eric Fehr getting a good look at Halak but couldn't deliver the game-winner.
But the best Washington chance had in overtime belonged to Backstrom. The center had a golden chance to shoot in close on Halak during a 3-on-1 break, but he held the puck too long, taking it behind the goal line, and didn't generate a shot on goal and play continued.
It turned out to be a costly play to not make the shot, as not long after Backstrom's missed chance, Plekanec didn't miss his. The Canadiens' center ended the game with a blast over Theodore's shoulder, giving Montreal a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
"We were screwing around with it [the puck] instead of taking it back and setting it up and coming out," Boudreau said. "I think when Joe [Corvo] threw it across the ice, it got redirected and Alex [Ovechkin] was changing and Nicky [Backstrom] got beat and Mike Knuble was caught on the other end of the boards. They came up and our defense was caught in transition so they backed up so Plekanec got a chance to walk into the top of the circle and he had a perfect shot."
For Plekanec, who was involved in a controversy before the game over a quote that appeared in Montreal's La Presse newspaper, it was a bit of vindication -- although he was also complimentary towards the goaltender he was accused of slighting.
"Again, I never said anything bad about the Capitals goaltending," he said afterwards. "I said they have very good goalies and they proved it. I would never say anything disrespectful to [Theodore]. If they took it that way, then that's what happens."
"Really good play by [Plekanec] -- just looks me off no problem and buries it," Cammalleri said. "It was a great shot. He made a good play out of the neutral zone to make that space for himself."
The two teams will play Game 2 Saturday night at Verizon Center before the series shifts to Quebec Monday night. Of course, the Capitals will look for a different result after a disappointing start to the series.
"We don't want to beat ourselves up," Gordon said. "We probably have to be a little more aggressive. We've got to battle just as hard. We're going to have to come out a little better for Game 2."
Asked if he felt his squad was feeling the pressure of being the top seed in the playoffs, Matt Bradley said he didn't think so.
"No, obviously we're a confident team," he said. "It's going to be a challenge because they are a good team and they've got a lot of great players over there. They didn't disappoint. We'll have to be better."
WASHINGTON CAPITALS vs. MONTREAL CANADIENS
(Montreal leads series, 1-0)
Game 1: Montreal 3, Washington 2 (OT)
Game 2: April 17 at Washington, 7 p.m. ET, CSN, Versus
Game 3: April 19 at Montreal, 7 p.m. ET, CSN
Game 4: April 21 at Montreal, 7 p.m. ET, CSN
Game 5*: April 23 at Washington, 7 p.m. ET, CSN
Game 6*: April 26 at Montreal, 7 p.m. ET, CSN
Game 7*: April 28 at Washington, 7 p.m., CSN
* = if necessary